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‘Let Them All Be Damned-I’ll Do As I Please’
In a career that made her one of the greatest American artist of the century, Georgia O’Keeffe claimed to have done it all by herself—without influence from family, friends, or fellow artists. The real story is less romantic though just as extraordinary.
September/October 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 6
The O’Keeffe exhibit was the last show at 291. It opened the day after President Wilson took his war message to Congress. In wartime Stieglitz’s hope that modern art could revitalize society seemed no more powerful than a desert mirage. Lacking funds, confidence, and freedom to continue experimenting with new ideas and expressions, he stopped publishing Camera Work and closed his gallery for good.
For O’Keeffe the war was less decisive. She was not interested in creating a new society, and after 1918 her effort to express herself through painting began to bear fruit. In keeping with other artists, she abandoned purely abstract art after World War I, seeking instead to portray flowers, barns, bones, and anything else that struck her fancy. She found that “filling space in a beautiful way” had not depended so completely upon abstract expression as she once thought. Indeed, part of O’Keeffe’s success as an artist rested upon her ability to appeal simultaneously to sophisticated and naive audiences, both of which could appreciate her style, her use of bold colors, and her strong sense of design.
The war did, however, mark a new beginning in the personal lives of O’Keeffe and Stieglitz. O’Keeffe, in Texas in May 1917, impulsively decided to visit 291 to see her show. Before she arrived in New York, the exhibit had closed, but Stieglitz rehung it for her private viewing. It was then that he first photographed O’Keeffe, her face twice and her hands several times. These pictures were the beginning of a remarkable series of about three hundred photographs that he took of her in the next twenty years.
Of her marriage to Stieglitz she wrote: “For me, he was much more wonderful in his work than as a human being.“
Stieglitz, then in his mid-fifties, was entranced by O’Keeffe. To him she personified the essence of femininity. At twenty-nine she was beautiful, sexy, spontaneous, and independent. He admired her courage and intensity and felt strongly attracted to her, particularly when he contrasted O’Keeffe with his wife of almost twenty-five years, Emmy, a traditional and somewhat sour woman whose chief interests—society and fashion—were repugnant to him. O’Keeffe stayed in New York for only three days but had time to go to Coney Island with Stieglitz, the photographer Paul Strand, and another friend. It was cold, and Stieglitz put his black loden cape around her, a gesture she recalled some sixty years later.
When O’Keeffe returned to Texas, she found teaching in Canyon more confining than she had the year before. She opposed America’s entry into World War I, and her views did not sit well with patriotic Texans. Depressed and ill, O’Keeffe left her job and went to live with a friend in the southern part of the state. Stieglitz, afraid that his new protégée was in danger, sent Paul Strand to Texas to bring her back to New York, where he had made arrangements for her to live and work in his niece’s studio on East Fifty-ninth Street.
One day, soon after her arrival in New York, Stieglitz’s wife unexpectedly interrupted a photo session with O’Keeffe. She gave her husband an ultimatum: Stop seeing O’Keeffe or leave. The choice was easy. He left to live with O’Keeffe in the studio apartment. It took six years to obtain his divorce, and Stieglitz and O’Keeffe were married in a civil ceremony in New Jersey in 1924.
They did not live happily ever after. Stieglitz, almost sixty-one, was twenty-four years older than his new wife. Rigid and idiosyncratic, he, as O’Keeffe wrote after his death, “was the leader or he didn’t play.” O’Keeffe, on the other hand, was equally determined to do things her own way. She, of course, kept her maiden name. “Why,” she asked, “should I take on someone else’s famous name?” The couple’s contrasting social natures made life together difficult. The firstborn Stieglitz loved to be the center of attention and throve on company, conversation, and conviviality, while O’Keeffe craved privacy and time and space to work. “I never knew how many there would be for dinner,” she complained. In her autobiography she did not mention her marriage to Stieglitz and in an introduction to selected photographs of herself by Stieglitz alluded indirectly to the couple’s problems. “For me,” she wrote, “he was much more wonderful in his work than as a human being.”
In fact, each did stimulate the other’s art. Until he met O’Keeffe, Stieglitz felt his creative urge was ebbing, but from 1918 until he put his camera down in 1937, he expanded photography’s horizons by taking exemplary new photographs, including his series of cloud studies, or “equivalents,” as he called them. These, he said, O’Keeffe helped inspire. So, too, did O’Keeffe mature as an artist, expanding her range and perspective under the careful nurturing of her husband, who showed, promoted, and sold her paintings to an admiring public.